Preserving tradition in Annapolis

With 18th-century flair, Historic Annapolis group celebrates the Fourth

July 05, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of families mingled with 18th-century re-enactors and costumed performers yesterday at the restored home of Declaration of Independence signer and third Maryland governor William Paca, where they celebrated Independence Day and the 50th anniversary of the group credited with saving Annapolis' historic downtown.

The Historic Annapolis Foundation event - part of a year-long anniversary celebration - drew about 1,800 people in the sweltering heat to the terraced 2-acre Paca garden, which featured puppet shows, musical performances, children's crafts, Colonial demonstrations and the chance to pick up a quill and put your own "John Hancock" on the document that shaped a nation.

"It's meant to conjure up the notion of a traditional July Fourth," said Brian Alexander, the foundation's president and chief executive, after helping his sons make bubbles with large loops of yarn.

The Historic Annapolis Foundation got its start a half-century ago as a grass-roots volunteer movement that set out to block the bulldozers and development plans that threatened to destroy the Colonial character of the state capital. Its efforts led to the formation of the Historic District Commission, now the Historic Preservation Commission, which won the right to oversee construction and exterior renovation downtown in a 1969 referendum. The celebration is part of an expanded program of public events and educational activities sponsored in recent years by the foundation, which claims direct involvement in the preservation of some 400 Annapolis buildings, including Paca's mansion and elaborate pleasure garden.

In a shaded corner of the garden yesterday, Jane Smith of Millersville, Alice Sulin of Severn and their grandsons, 9-year-old Nick Tieszen and 7-year-old Victor Stevens, learned about 18th-century life from Revolutionary War re-enactor Jim Casey.

"In the 18th century, your parents would sell you for a couple of shillings and you would be apprenticed out to learn a trade - maybe you were a cobbler making shoes or a cooper making barrels," Casey tells the boys.

After watching the re-enactors fire their rifles in formation, Nick exclaimed, "That was awesome!"

"It's the best holiday, I think, because we learn more and more every Fourth of July," he said.

The restoration of Paca's 18th-century Prince George Street mansion and garden is among the Historic Annapolis Foundation's most notable accomplishments.

In the early 20th century the home became the front lobby of a 200-room hotel called Carvel Hall that was built over the garden.

In 1965, the foundation raised the funds to buy the home, which was slated to be demolished. It then persuaded the state to purchase the remainder of the property and restore the garden.

The house and garden, under the foundation's management, were opened to the public in the mid-1970s.

Since then, the group has been on the frontlines of some of the most contentious preservation and planning fights in the city, among them, the 1999 effort to prevent the city from demolishing five run-down century-old structures on West Street to build a parking garage.

Some in the city insisted that the homes - which the city recently sold to a developer who plans to convert them into shops, apartments and a restaurant - had no historic value.

Over the years, the foundation - like the city's Historic Preservation Commission - has drawn the ire of some downtown residents, who criticize its sometimes inflexible views of historic preservation. Among the examples residents note is the nasty fight over a rose trellis that was made of plastic instead of wood.

But since Alexander took over two years ago and began redirecting the foundation toward more public outreach and educational activities, some in the city have criticized the group for moving away from its preservationist roots.

"People have said we have abandoned our focus on preservation - we are just doing more things," Alexander said.

"Now, we are in a position where we can think a little more about educational programming and opening more of our sites."

This year, the foundation launched plans to convert a former Main Street shop into the Anne St. Claire Wright Annapolis History Center - a museum that would provide information on Annapolis history and the historic district. It is named after one of the group's founders and most vocal preservationists and is expected to open in 2004.

The foundation has also begun planning with the city for a possible preservation resource center to be located in the historic Indian King Tavern on Francis Street that the foundation purchased last year.

The center would provide historical references and preservation guidance to homeowners.

Listening to the Colonial tunes of Gilmore's Light Ensemble in the garden yesterday, former Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer credited the foundation for making the city was it is today.

"Historic Annapolis is what made Annapolis Annapolis," he said. "It's the difference between this city being an ordinary splotch of suburbia and one of the nicest towns of its size in America."

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